HEATHER BOOTH, FEMINIST ICON, ORGANIZER FIGHTER
FOR JUSTICE and DEMOCRACY,
VFA BOARD MEMBER
If we organize, we can change
And organizing is the only sure way that we can change the world for the better.
I was born in 1945 in Brookhaven, Mississippi, while my father was in the army in WWII.
I sometimes say, never stereotype anyone or any place. I was born into a very loving family with really wonderful
"family values." We believed in treating people with decency, and living the values we cared about -
and in building a better world. Being surrounded by such love, I thought all people should be treated this way.
I was also brought up Jewish and learned the values of struggling for freedom from the history, the culture, the
holidays-and the texts: "Justice, justice thou shalt pursue." Twice saying justice, because it was that
My mother, Hazel Victoria Weisbard Tobis, was a wonderful person-filled with song, warmth, humor, energy and love.
She was her high school valedictorian, but her father denied her the right to go to college on scholarship because
he didn't believe women should get an education. She returned to school after we, her kids, were in high school.
She became a special ed teacher and a beloved part of schools where she taught. She shared with her kids the values
of treating people equally. She was the first person who showed me Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (when
I was in high school) and encouraged me to read it. She died in 2004 from Alzheimer's and I still miss her in my
life. One of the nicest things a person can say to me is that I remind them of my mother.
My father, Jerome Sanford Tobis,
is also a remarkable and wonderful person. He is beloved by almost all who know him-personally as a fabulous friend,
professionally as a skilled and insightful physician and teacher, and is always reaching out, engaged, connecting
people and acting on his beliefs. He is a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) and has
specialized in treatment of brain damage, of the elderly, and as a medical ethicist. With emeritus status at his
University Hospital, he still works four days a week and has nearly endless interest, groups he is part of (complementary
medicine, ethics, book club, a mens' group he has been in for 40 years, and the list goes on).
For all the loving, I think I was
very insecure - perhaps this is a plight of most women. Would I be good enough, know enough was always a question.
In the ways that weaknesses can become strengths (and strengths weaknesses) I used this to engage others, to learn,
to break down how to do things in small understandable parts and became a real teacher, because I was trying to
learn. I still acted for change, but in spite of this insecurity (not because I was confident - just committed
to doing justice).
In high school, I quit a sorority I was recruited into, when I realized they did not include any kids who were
"outsiders"-- outside of traditional notions of beauty (though I thought I was not attractive), who were
black in an overwhelmingly white school, who were overweight, or idiosyncratic. I decided to join the "outsiders."
For the same reason I quit the cheerleading team. And sought out those working for a better society. I connected
through the American Friends Service Committee with anti-death penalty work and then with CORE and support for
the sit-ins against Woolworth's. From there, I connected with SNCC.
Heather playing the guitar for
Fannie Lou Hamer, a great hero of the civil rights movement (photo: Wally Roberts)
Entering the University of Chicago,
my life opened up as I found others who shared my beliefs and wanted to turn them into action. I became very active
in the civil rights movement, head of campus Friends of SNCC, student government, our progressive campus political
party and the student organization that became SDS, and many other activities. In response to one of the guys telling
me to "shut up" when I was talking...I formed the first campus women's organization in the country (in
1965): Women's Radical Action Program or WRAP. We did an analysis of "significant responses" to women
and men in class - and found men received 4 times more significant responses from the faculty when they spoke (whether
positive or negative). We designed ways to highlight how women were kept "in their place" and ways to
support women (students and faculty and in subjects, getting student initiated classes).
In 1964, I went to Mississippi,
as part of the Freedom Summer Project, and returned to campus with even deeper commitment to the "movement"
for justice. Because we organized we helped to win legal changes and end the lynching that was more common in prior
years and expanded political representation. I went to an SDS conference in 1965, where "the woman question"
was being discussed and returned to set up many consciousness raising groups around Chicago. A friend was raped
at knife point. We went with her to get a gynecological exam. Student Health said gynecological exams were not
covered and she was given a lecture on her promiscuity. We sat with her. Over time, women now can receive gynecological
exams from student health. Organizing works.
In 1965, a friend told me his sister was pregnant and needed an abortion. I had not thought about this issue before.
I thought I would try to help (as you should do if you believe in the "golden rule."). I found a doctor
through the Medical Committee for Human Rights (TRM Howard, who it turns out was an amazing civil rights activist.)
The treatment was successful; word spread and others came to see me for this. Over time, this became JANE or The
Service, which performed 11,000 abortions (which the women who ran it learned to perform themselves) until Roe
became the law in 1973.
In 1966, I was a leader of a sit-in against the war in Vietnam. We were the first campus in the country where the
students took over the administration building over the war. Paul Booth was the National Secretary of SDS, based
in Chicago, which was (at that time) the largest student organization in the country. He came to my campus (both
as a leader of the anti-war movement and he says he was looking for me). We sat next to each other for several
days. After three days he asked me to marry him. After 5 days, I said I would, though said we should wait a year,
till I graduated. We have been married for 43 years. There has been a lot we have learned together - about how
to be mindful of a relationship and the benefits of struggle as well as love and support. And we look forward to
growing old together, supporting each other. We love our two grown sons and their wives (filled with creativity,
warmth, wonderful values) and now four grandchildren. Truly a joy in life.
In 1967, I helped to found the Chicago Women's Liberation Union-and set up work groups: Action Committee for Decent
Childcare (won $1 million for childcare, revision of childcare center licensing, and parents and providers on a
childcare review board), Women's Liberation School, and many other groups. In 1970, with the Women's Strike ("don't
iron while the strike is hot!" was the slogan), I realized NOW was the leading edge of this movement and joined
with them. I was going to graduate school and teaching school - and raising two kids. After I was fired for union
organizing (defending the rights of clericals where I worked who were terribly abused), I won a back pay suit at
the NLRB. With that money, I started a training center for organizers: Midwest Academy - still providing extraordinary
strategic training for the next generation of organizers.
We helped to start and support the working women's movement and move direct action campaigns. I trained a good
portion of the early leadership/chapters/regional conferences of NOW and other parts of the women's movement. We
helped to design a campaign against Sears Roebuck, which discriminated against women as employees (held In low
paying jobs) and customers (wives could not get credit in their own name).The campaign was cut short, in part,
by Sears influence and by a division in the organization from an election in NOW. Had there been this campaign
that might have united women from working class areas (Sears customers and employees). I think the history of the
women's movement might have been an even stronger one.
I helped to start many national organizations and local ones. In 1980 when Reagan was elected, I decided to learn
about elections and train others in how to approach this work in their organizations. I helped many organizations
find ways to combine their efforts with politics in a time when few issue groups made this link. I became very
active in Chicago and became the deputy field director for the Mayor Washington campaign.
My husband got a job in Washington (where I had been commuting as the co-director of Citizen Action-an organization
working on consumer issues, with nearly 3 million members at its height). We moved to DC, and though I hated it
(it wasn't Chicago) initially, I've come to love it, filled with friends and good work and quite a wonderful area.
I directed the state outreach for the first mobilization for women's lives (pro-choice rallies-with 250,000 in
DC and 250,000 more around the country).
In 1992, I ran Carol Moseley
Braun's field operation when she successfully ran for Senate. In 1993, I went to work for the Democratic Party
and became their training director, helping to create a model of modern campaign training. And I was the founding
director of NAACP National Voter Fund, which helped to increase the African American vote by nearly 2 million voters
I've led, organized or advised many
efforts for change in this country and this world--immigration reform (consulting for the creation of the Campaign
for Comprehensive Immigration Reform), health care reform (directing the AFL-CIO health care reform campaign),
was the first DC representative for MoveOn, and worked with many other groups. In 2000, I directed the campaign
to pass the first Obama budget. Then I became the director of Americans for Financial Reform, which led the fight
to rein in Wall Street--winning far more than any expected at the start (though we still have a long way to go).
I am now senior advisor to One Nation Working Together: Putting America Back to Work and Pulling America Back Together.
It is a mobilization to re-engage and re-inspire people to act to change this world for the better.
It is a great life. Demanding, challenging, rewarding. Filled with wonderful friends and family. And great joys.
We can change the world, IF we organize! And we have changed the world, because we organized!
Heather Booth: email@example.com
to VFA Fabulous Feminists Table of Contents